Too Close to Call as Jerusalem Elects Two Chief Rabbis

Protesters will gather outside city hall to rally against candidacy of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who has a chance of being voted Sephardi chief rabbi.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Two chief rabbis for Jerusalem will be elected on Tuesday, after 11 years in which the posts stood vacant. Several candidates have dropped out of the race, leaving a total of 14 as of Monday night. But only four are considered serious contenders – Shlomo Amar and Shmuel Eliyahu for Sephardi chief rabbi; and Aryeh Stern and Moshe Chaim Lau for Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

The 48 electors will cast their ballots at city hall Tuesday afternoon, with the winners set to be announced Tuesday evening.

While the vote is taking place, a protest will be held outside against the candidacy of Eliyahu, currently the chief rabbi of Safed. Eliyahu has repeatedly made anti-Arab statements, and was even indicted for incitement to racism in 2007. The charges were withdrawn after he retracted and apologized for his remarks.

On Sunday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein consulted with other senior legal officials on whether to disqualify Eliyahu’s candidacy. So far, no decision has been announced, though Weinstein has publicly opposed his election. Last year, when Eliyahu ran for the post of Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Weinstein ultimately decided against disqualifying him.

Both Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who has long wanted to get a Zionist rabbi elected as the city’s chief rabbi, and Naftali Bennett, chairman of religious-Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi, are backing Stern for the Ashkenazi post and Amar, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, for the Sephardi one.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, together control about 17 seats on the electoral panel. Both are backing Lau, whose brother is currently Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and whose father previously held that post.

For the Sephardi post, Shas is officially backing Amar, despite the bad blood between the rabbi and the party’s leadership, while UTJ is backing Eliyahu.

Amar’s chances of winning increased this week after two small factions on the Jerusalem municipality agreed to support him rather than another candidate, Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, in an effort to ensure Eliyahu’s defeat. But Eliyahu is supported by several leading religious-Zionist rabbis, and is thus likely to win votes from among the 15 to 20 religious Zionist electors, despite Bennett’s support for Amar.

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